TAMPA, Fla. Harvest CROO Robotics has published a patent for its robotic harvesting picking wheel.

It"s the first patent pending for the company, which develops and tests robotic harvesting machinery for strawberries.

Machinery manufactured by the company, co-founded by Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms, works autonomously in fields, picking and packing berries.

The company, cofounded by Bob Pitzer, the chief technical officer who invented the machine"s harvesting wheel, constructed a prototype last fall in Florida and is building another prototype for harvesting in Santa Maria, Calif.

Harvest CROO plans to test an alpha unit, with a targeted release in late 2016, Wishnatzki said.

The machinery is performing well and Wishnatzki said it has considerably increased speeds from spring tests.

It uses new motors and the upgraded software. Wishnatzki said he hopes the prototype can obtain commercial speeds to harvest 25 acres in three days.

Grower acceptance is high and other large growers are expected to invest, he said.

"Tests are going well and this machinery should revolutionize the strawberry industry," Wishnatzki said. "It will help keep American growers in business. Without technology like this, the future of farming strawberries in the U.S. could be in doubt as the labor force is a major constraint."

Wishnatzki"s company is producing the machinery as a collaborative effort with investors in Florida and California.

Those investors include representatives of:

  • Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, Plant City
  • Sweet Life Farms LLC, Plant City
  • California Giant Inc., Watsonville, Calif.
  • Sweet Darling Sales Inc., Watsonville
  • Central West Produce, Santa Maria, Calif.
  • Main Street Produce Inc., Santa Maria and
  • Red Dog, Santa Maria.

"This is the future," said Sam Astin III, Astin Strawberry Exchange"s president and owner. "This will change up everything."

Future production models are planned to include more than 16 picking heads on one platform that can cover 8 acres/20 hours a day, including weekends, and harvest rates are projected to be competitive with human labor, Wishnatzki said.

The company"s goal is to be lower labor costs.

Wishnatzki"s business model isn"t to sell machines but plans to lease them so large up-front capital investment isn"t required, he said.

Other benefits of the machinery include non-fluctuating harvesting rates, elimination of rejections due to weight, increasing yields by 10% or more by eliminating over-packs and reducing plastic use by a third, Wishnatzki said.